Red Flash to hit road

Saint Francis opens the season tonight with an enormous challenge 2,600 miles away against one of the most fundamentally sound teams in college basketball, St. Mary’s.

The Gaels, No. 22 in the preseason AP poll, are sort of like Wisconsin with the way they move the ball and make smart decisions. They have an All-America candidate center in Jock Landale who is extremely skilled, and a coach in Randy Bennett who has been wildly successful there since 2001 and on Friday received a 10-year contract extension.

The Red Flash are projected to have a solid season, getting picked to win the Northeast Conference, and they’ll learn a lot about themselves in this game.

“We wanted to challenge the guys right off the bat,” SFU coach Rob Krimmel said.

The non-conference schedule is incredibly challenging as the Flash also have road trips to Duke and Louisville. And the back end of this California swing includes a game Monday at San Francisco.

The players wanted a trip to California, Krimmel worked it out, and both of these are money games for the Saint Francis program.

“This is our moment to shock the world,” SFU point guard Jamaal King said of tonight’s game. “A lot of teams don’t get opportunities to play teams like this, and the first game, it’s going to be their first game, too. It’s going to be fun.”

In theory, anyway.

St. Mary’s has a way of crushing the competition, especially at home in McKeon Pavilion, a 3,500-seat campus gym that’s one of the most imposing places to play outside of the big-boy gyms of power programs.

The Gaels went 29-5 last season (16-2 in the West Coast Conference, with both losses to Gonzaga) and return most of their key players. They were picked — not Gonzaga — to win the conference this season, with Landale and guards Emmett Naar and Calvin Hermanson all selected to the all-conference team.

Krimmel liked the opportunity to play a big game in a small, hostile gym.

“We wanted to find some places like that because those are the gyms that we play in,” Krimmel said. “That size and (fans) are on top of you, and I wanted our guys to experience that.

“I didn’t want them to experience it for the first time in January or February when we go on the road and everybody is on top of you, whether it’s at Mount St. Mary’s or Saint Francis NY or Wagner, people are on top of you. So to give those guys that experience early, hopefully we’ll be able to draw on it later in the year.”

The Flash, in fact, lost in that type of environment in last year’s NEC title game at Mount St. Mary’s, where the gym was rocking as the home team overcame a nine-point deficit.

Landale will present a major challenge for the Flash, who lost center Josh Nebo to transfer (Texas A&M). Sophomore Deivydas Kuzavas will draw the assignment of trying to stop the Gaels’ big man.

“We can take our guys in these early games and play against teams that are better than us, that have more talent than us, and we can look to those teams and say, “Hey, listen, look how this guy played, look how effective he was.’ So we can use it from a teaching standpoint.

“Look how good (Landale) was at sealing in the post, look how good he was at rebounding, look how good he was at setting a screen, and use those as teaching tools. Whether it’s him or with a guard when we get down to play Duke, those are great opportunities for us to help our guys get better through our opponents.”

Few small programs go into St. Mary’s and steal wins. The Flash will have to hit a lot of 3-pointers and protect the ball to stay close.

There’s a chance they might catch St. Mary’s flat in the opener and perhaps overlooking them, but since the Flash were picked to win their league, that’s not likely to happen.

“They’re going to read the preseason stuff, and they’re going to have the attention of their guys because of the rankings,” Krimmel said.

No matter what happens, tonight’s game will be about as good of a learning experience as the team can get in a season opener.

“When we go in there, we want to be competitive, we want to try to put ourselves in position to win all of those games,” Krimmel said of the tough non-conference slate. “When we get out of it, we want to get a little bit better, we want to make sure that we’re healthy and we want to use those as teaching moments.”